Di Maio resigns: how long can Italy’s coalition last?

Five Star’s popularity has cratered in coalition, sapping the government’s mandate and threatening its parliamentary majority

Luigi Di Maio
Luigi Di Maio announces that he is standing down
(Image credit: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the Five Star movement that governs Italy in coalition with the center-left Democratic Party (PD), has announced his resignation, initiating an anxious reshuffling of the already-fragile government in Rome.

Di Maio’s decision follows a period of crisis for the populist Five Star movement - a political force whose anti-establishment credentials have been undermined by a year and a half in government.

Beset by party infighting and plummeting poll numbers, Di Maio, 33, announced his decision late on Wednesday night, confirming the news after days of rumours.

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“Today I am here to tender my resignation as the political leader of the Five Star Movement,” he said to a gathering of party members in Rome - many of whom have become foes during his stint as leader. “The moment has come for us to lay the foundations again. Today it is the end of an era. I think the government needs to go on as it is. The results will come.”

Di Maio intends to remain as foreign secretary in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government.

The Five Star and PD union was joined out of expediency in September precisely to avoid a new general election, and as such Di Maio’s resignation is not expected to bring down the government, which will do its utmost to hold together.

But both Five Star and PD are threatened by Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League, whose popularity is soaring in opposition. Five Star was in coalition with the League as recently as August, when Salvini collapsed the government by resigning, hoping to trigger an election that would carry his party to power.

His gambit backfired, and Five Star joined in coalition with PD instead, but Five Star’s popularity has suffered in coalition with the establishment PD even more than it did with the populist League.

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Since the 2018 national election that first carried them to power with 33% of the vote, Five Star has suffered from a total of 31 expulsions and defections of lawmakers that have seriously threatened its majority in the Senate - most of those coming since the new coalition was formed in August.

Now, only about 16% of Italians say they would vote for Five Star, according to recent opinion polls - a catastrophic implosion for a party that was only recently one of Europe’s most vibrant anti-establishment movements.

Salvini now has a golden chance to evince the Italian electorate’s support for his party - Sunday holds two crucial regional elections in Calabria and Emilia-Romagna.

The League is expected to achieve a crushing victory in both, as Italian voters continue to punish incumbents and reward outsiders. If this happens, Five Star, and by extension the government, will come under increased pressure.

“Di Maio, once seen as a fresh face untainted by the cynicism of Rome politics, has since become a symbol of the party’s loss of direction and lack of heft at governing,” says The Wall Street Journal. “Many analysts predict that the shaky coalition will survive until the end of its term in 2023, but continue to struggle to find consensus on policy.”

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The problems facing Five Star are varied, but chief among them are concerns that Di Maio has failed to share power outside his intimate inner circle, and that the movement as a whole has failed to live up to its radical reformist agenda.

“The party whose raison d’être is to rail against corruption and injustice is discovering that power entails responsibilities, which require compromises, which mean a dilution of the brand’s purity,” writes Tony Barber in the Financial Times. “The inescapable lesson from Five Star’s year and a half in government is that voters desperate for something different can quickly lose faith in an anti-establishment party that tries to reform the system from within and achieves modest results.”

Francesco Galietti, head of political risk consultancy Policy Sonar, adds: “Di Maio’s resignation is very ominous for the future of the ruling coalition. The PD has just announced a major rebranding is in the works and these things, leaders quitting and party overhauls, only happen in Italy when the house is on fire.”

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William Gritten

William Gritten is a London-born, New York-based strategist and writer focusing on politics and international affairs.